Saturday, June 17, 2017

Giants Stadium - 6/17/91

When I walked (stumbled?) out of RFK Stadium on July 12, 1990, my mind was fully blown. The three hours I had just spent having my brain bent by the Grateful Dead had far less to do with anything I inhaled or imbibed and far more to do with the sheer brilliance of their performance, capped by a near 25-minute Dark Star that left me scrambling to pick my jaw up off the ground. That show was its own capper to a near year-long run of excellence I had witnessed, from East Rutherford, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the previous October to Landover, Maryland four short months before, the Dead were in peak form.

About two weeks later, I got a call at home from a friend of mine telling me that Brent Mydland had died. It was a body blow to every Deadhead. I immediately flashed to the prior summer’s shows at RFK, when, during I Will Take You Home the big screens zoomed in on Brent and the small photos of his two young daughters he kept nestled on his keyboard. What would happen now? 

In the pre-Internet age, information did not move at the speed of light. The musician asked to take Brent’s seat, Vince Welnick, was unknown to most of us (and you couldn’t pull up a Wikipedia page to find out more) and we had no idea someone far better known - Bruce Hornsby - had rebuffed the band’s request to join them full-time, but agreed to come on temporarily while Vince got his sea legs. 

And so it was, eight weeks after walking out of a sweltering RFK, I boogied into the Spectrum having no idea what to expect. I was less than floored, but understood Welnick was new and the pressure on him enormous. I missed the MSG shows that included Hornsby’s debut (and included two other standout performances - 9/19 and 9/20) but by the time Spring 1991 rolled around, I was dutifully impressed. The shows I saw at the Capital Center and particularly the three nights at the Omni in Atlanta, were intense, creative, and thoroughly enjoyable. That the band remade itself on the fly, with two new members occupying similar musical space, was a testament not just to the surviving five, but the new guys too. 

For me, the stage was set for what is, in my opinion, the best show of the post-Brent Mydland era - the June 17, 1991 performance at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. To borrow from Reggie Jackson, as the “straw that stirred the drink,” Garcia’s centrality to the quality (or lack thereof) of the Dead’s live performances cannot be overstated, and on this night, he was firing on all cylinders. Garcia is engaged and engaging from the show’s beginning - his graying hair blown back by stage fans, the band cozied into the first Eyes of the World show opener since 1975. It is possible this was done as a simple nod to the ABC broadcast recording being done of the show, but regardless, it is one of the band’s standout performances of this foundational tune.  

Unlike other shows where the band takes a few songs to get in gear, things click quickly. Thanks to the ABC recording you can see the band’s interactions and engagement with the music. Jerry’s appreciative nods in Bruce’s direction during Eyes are telling. Like a proud papa seeing his favored son succeed, Bruce’s touch-feel for the Dead’s music provided the band’s members - and particularly Garcia - with a newfound energy after Mydland’s passing. And unlike Welnick, Hornsby was confident in his ability to push the music. Part of what makes this show so special is Hornsby’s assertiveness. It is not just his and Garcia’s melodic interludes during Eyes, it is his playfulness with the music - Dark Star teases right before Masterpiece, Truckin’ and China Doll, his piano leads during the first set closer Might As Well landing like waves on the shore, his frisky Space jam as the band tuned up for the second set and his intuitive sense of transition deep into the second set from Truckin’ into New Speedway Boogie - separate this night from so many others of the post-Mydland era.  

And that is not to short change Welnick, who was being put in an impossible spot. On the one hand, he was being asked to replace the band’s longest-serving keyboardist while knowing he was (at best) the band’s second choice (behind Hornsby, who he had to play next to every night). On top of that, he was entering a world of incredibly devoted fans who were also unremitting in their criticism (the “Don’t Let Brent Sing” movement was well underway when I started touring with the Dead in 1987. After his passing, people came around to his talent. Go figure.) 

Even so, there were times on that sultry evening when he was given a chance to shine. Unlike Mydland’s bluesy growl, Welnick’s voice was more harmonious, and Hornsby wisely stepped back to give Vince opportunities during the stunning Saint of Circumstance second set opener to display both his musical and vocal chops.  At other points, like the extended Uncle John’s Band that closed out the first part of an equally extended second set, you can see the kernels of knowledge beginning to form, the muscle memory Vince was starting to develop, as he picks up hints of The Other One and Dark Star Garcia and Lesh flirt with during the meltdown jam that flows into the Drums segment. 

In all of this, there is clear joy and a desire for experimentation. The show stretches for almost three hours without feeling bloated. The nearly hour-long beginning to the second set comprised of Saint>Ship of Fools>Truckin’>New Speedway>Uncle John’s Band is both seamless in its transitions (Hornsby tries to goad the band into Dark Star again just prior to Truckin’ and gets about a minute’s worth of interest before the band abandons things) and well jammed without feeling indulgent. If that was not enough, the back end is equally muscular - with a rare (and eerie) China Doll rolling out of Space, followed by by Weir taking a double dip with a reprise of Playin’ in the Band and a set closing Sugar Magnolia that absolutely brings the house down. 

The Weight encore feels fitting. That song, performed with each band member taking a verse, is also in its way, an opportunity for them to take a small bow for what they had just produced. For those of us who cut our teeth watching Brent on the proverbial “hot seat,” it was also a chance to reflect on how far the band had come in the 11 months since his passing. Instead of curling into a shell, the band, as it had done so many times before, had, at least for a short time, reinvented itself and was stronger than ever. 

Of course, as I’ve noted before, that reinvention proved to be short-lived. The Fall 1991 tour, while ambitious in scope, failed to meet the high level of Giants Stadium or the other stand out performances during that summer in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Illinois and Bonner Springs, Kansas. Hornsby played his last show as an unofficial member in early 1992 and the quality tailed off as Garcia’s heroin addiction reared its head again and the band flagged. But on this night in New Jersey, that denouement was far off in the distance and the band played what may have been its greatest show of the era. 

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